I have always wondered why people changed so much after they were elected to public office. Now, I know that those people did not necessarily change, but they were seeing things from a different perspective. I have found that public officials are bound by legal and ethical constraints of which the general public is not aware.
Currently, I am serving as one of the nine members of the Union County Board of School Trustees. My perspective is unique in that I was a teacher in the Union County School system for 33 years. As a member of the board, I have been surprised to learn several truths I did not know as an employee. No. 1 is what individuals sometimes recount to the public or to the media as fact is not necessarily true. No. 2 is that a public servant may not speak publicly without possible charges of ethics violations. Hypothetically speaking, someone may complain of unfair treatment or other wrongdoing by a government body. The reporting of the details by the complainant may be misleading or entirely untrue. Those who are charged with the complaint may not individually rebut or dispute these allegations in order to share all of the knowledge they have about the issue.
I have always been a teacher advocate and will defend teachers and look for ways to make it easier for them to effectively do their jobs. There are some teachers, though, who make poor choices and do not need to be defended. If the truth could be told, I believe that even their colleagues would agree.
I would love to be able to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in all situations. I will never knowingly tell something untrue, but I am compelled to remain silent on many issues. Often this silence is construed by many to be indifference, insensitivity, arrogance, or even laziness. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I was approached one night at a local restaurant and asked about a particular student who had been expelled. When I explained that I couldn’t discuss someone else’s child with them, I was told that I had ”turned into a politician.” I thought that this comment was unflattering until I saw in last Monday’s Union County News that I was one of a group of dishonest people. I can’t think of many adjectives that would be more offensive than dishonest. I vote with my head and heart. All of my decisions are by no means perfect, but they are all based on what I believe is right and what is best for students. I firmly believe that this is also true of those who serve with me. For those who know some of us personally, I can’t see how you would believe any differently. It is unfortunate that past indiscretions by public officials have caused some citizens to be unduly mistrustful of all people in a community leadership position.
It is no mystery that good people sometimes are hesitant to seek leadership roles in local government. Being under constant scrutiny and criticism is not much incentive. Nonetheless, I encourage those people who have a passion for their school, town, or county to run for a seat and the opportunity to make a positive change. I also encourage citizens to call me and other elected officials when you have concerns. Give us a chance to help you before you make quick judgments about our qualifications and our character. In spite of the sometimes unfair or uninformed criticism doled out, the job of a public servant can be very rewarding when the opportunity to positively impact people is presented.
I found a great sense of purpose and satisfaction this past year when the school board was able to help several concerned citizens who addressed us. The first was a request by a parent for on-campus practice facilities for baseball and softball teams. The parent cited the issue of safety when students had to travel to sites around the county after school for practice. It was fortuitous that money that was earmarked specifically for buildings had become available and the board acted to accommodate the students’ needs. The second request was by parents and students who requested more advanced courses. Again, the board asked the administration to plan for more of these courses, and the student need was met. Although grammar and cursive writing have not been a part of South Carolina standards for a number of years, Dr. Woodall and the board agreed that both skills were vital for our students to be competitive in the job market and in post-secondary endeavors. Both grammar and cursive writing have been implemented in Union County elementary schools for the past two years.
I have had experiences with the Union County school system my entire life. My viewpoints have been those of a student, a parent, a taxpayer, a teacher, a district math specialist, and now a school trustee. Although my perspective has changed, I have not. If I have, I hope my true friends will set me straight. Dishonest? I hope you will get to know me before passing judgment.
Jane R. Wilkes represents District 9 on the Union County Board of School Trustees.